Senate Climate Bill Would Send $6B-Plus to Cleaner Transportation

Transportation would receive more than $6 billion of the revenue generated by selling carbon emissions permits to fuel providers under a new Senate climate bill introduced today by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT).

Kerry_Lieberman_Graham_Hold_Press_Conference_XOA0hQd5O1Kl.jpgSens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), left, Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), center, and John Kerry (D-MA), right, began their climate talks in December. (Photo: Getty)

That money for infrastructure would be divided into three equal parts, according to the legislation. One-third would go into the nation's cash-strapped highway trust fund – with a mandate to set aside the funding for projects that decrease greenhouse gas emissions – while another third would go towards competitive federal grants in the style of the stimulus law's Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. 

A final third would go towards local land-use planning, as envisioned in the so-called “CLEAN TEA” bill championed by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE).

“We want to make this the Senate where we finish the job and cast the decisive vote for the future,” Kerry told reporters at a packed Capitol Hill press conference where veterans' groups and industry representatives lent their support to the legislation.

The climate bill also takes a step towards requiring a set of national transport objectives – a longtime goal of reform groups – by giving the U.S. DOT and Environmental Protection Agency one year to propose “national transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions goals” as well as unified strategies for states and metro areas to measure their compliance with those goals.

State and local transportation planners would then have two more years to draft plans for emissions reduction, using a variety of strategies named in the bill, including transit-oriented development, high-speed rail, zoning changes, and promotion of biking and walking. Any areas that do not propose plans for reducing transport emissions would be declared ineligible for the proposed “CLEAN TEA” grants.

The bill states that emissions allowances set aside for the highway trust fund “shall be used to promote the safety, effectiveness, and efficiency of transportation,” specifying that the money should be used in accordance with the principles of the “CLEAN TEA” package. But the legislation did not specify how such a firewall surrounding highway trust fund money would be enforced within the U.S. DOT.

Nonetheless, transportation reformers hailed the bill as a step forward. "The authord deserve high praise for ensuring that revenues generated from the transportation sector go in part toward meeting the growing demand for more, better and cleaner travel options," Geoff Anderson, co-chairman of the advocacy group Transportation for America, said in a statement.

Carper, in a statement on the bill's release, said the addition of "CLEAN TEA" language "puts us on the right path to reduce transportation emissions and oil consumption and improve our nation's crumbling transportation infrastructure ... I hope we can continue to build bipartisan support for infrastructure investment as part of the comprehensive climate bill as we move through the legislative process."

Even as lawmakers, aides, and advocates picked through the substance of the nearly 1000-page bill, its political future remained very much in doubt.

An aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) warned recently that the measure may not reach the upper-chamber floor this year unless Democratic leaders see a path to reaching the 60-vote threshold necessary to break a certain GOP filibuster. The onetime Republican cosponsor of Kerry and Lieberman's effort, Lindsey Graham (SC), did not appear at today's unveiling, though he vowed in a statement to consider the legislation.

We should move forward in a reasoned, thoughtful manner and in a political climate which gives us the best chance at success,” Graham said, reiterating his previous conclusions that the Gulf oil spill and simmering immigration debate “have made it extremely difficult for transformational legislation in the area of energy and climate to garner bipartisan support at this time."

Answering the perception among many Hill observers that the climate bill's odds of passage are slim at best, Kerry decried what he described as an attitude inside the Beltway that assumes a broad climate bill would be “dead on arrival, replaced by a watered-down energy bill or nothing at all.”

Nonetheless, Reid indicated earlier this week in an interview with Univision that he would be open to moving forward with a smaller energy bill this year that did not include broad emissions cuts.

The two senators replaced their initial plan for a linked fee on carbon-based motor fuels, which became politically toxic for the White House and Graham after critics branded it a new gas tax, with a fixed price for emissions permits that oil producers and refiners would have to purchase at the end of each quarter. Those permits could not be traded among businesses or “banked” for later use, and any over- or under-supply would count against the next quarter's allocation.

We took refiners and fuel providers out of the market,” Kerry and Lieberman's offices said in a summary of the bill's transport section. “Instead of having them participate in the market for allowances, we made sure the price of carbon was constant across the industry.”

(ed. note. This post was updated to add comment from Carper's office.)